Spartans are renowned for their Scottish Cup heroics, having taken some big scalps in the competition over the years. And on Saturday they almost made their mark in the Irn-Bru Challenge Cup, falling agonisingly short to Northern Ireland champions Linfield 2-1.
It was quite the occasion at the rebranded ‘Ainslie Park Stadium’ as a fraction more than 900 supporters, 350 having made the trip over from Belfast, rolled through the newly-installed turnstiles for this intriguing second-round match-up.
Linfield dominated the first half without really testing Andrew Stobie in the Spartans goal, David Healy’s side eventually breaking the deadlock six minutes before the interval through Louis Rooney’s contentious penalty after Spartans captain Michael Herd was judged to have handled in the box.
And although Stephen Lowry’s well-placed shot added a second just three minutes after the restart, Linfield, who were knocked out of the Champions League by Celtic in July, were left hanging on at the finish as the hosts threatened to force the tie into extra time.
Substitute Blair Atkinson’s close-range finish with 15 minutes remaining was no more than the Lowland League club deserved before Ross Allum’s eyes lit up as he found himself free inside the six-yard box only to be denied by Gareth Deane’s instinctive block.
Spartans boss Dougie Samuel felt his players didn’t get the rub of the green regarding some of the game’s big talking points, insisting his side were denied two penalties of their own by Welsh referee Mark Petch.
“We really didn’t get many breaks but I need to watch what I say,” Samuel said. “At the end of the day I’ve got players that made mistakes and gave the ball away but it happens too often where it seems to be the case that the bigger clubs get the breaks. People in our league will laugh when I say that because they’ll think we get more breaks when they play us so it swings and roundabouts.
“But I’m really proud of the players. The goal obviously gave us a huge boost and injection of confidence. It was really only after that we played with some freedom and made it a real contest. The gameplan was always to try and get to an hour and then be a bit more positive.
“It’s not often people are standing outside waiting to get in at 2pm to watch a game so that was fantastic to see. We’ve enjoyed this week and we would love to play against league teams in a more regular basis.”
The decisions that Samuel alluded to saw a Linfield defender block a Ross Guthrie strike in the first half before goalscorer Atkinson was sent sprawling to the ground having won the race to the ball ahead of Linfield No.1 Deane late on.
That said, club captain Herd felt he and his team-mates gave everything they had in the tank.
“The boys were terrific,” the 28-year-old said. “On another day we could have taken them to extra time. I have full belief with everyone in our changing-room that we can go on and become league champions. We can take an enormous amount of confidence and hopefully we can build on that.”
Healy was impressed with the Capital club’s desire to push his players all the way. “The whole experience was really enjoyable and credit must go to Spartans. As a team on the pitch I thought they were a real credit,” Healy said. “I didn’t know a lot about the team so we were coming into a wee bit of the unknown but they gave it their all right to the end.”
Spartans: Stobie, Corbett, Stevenson, Tolmie, Thomson, Greenhill, Dishington, Herd, Allum, Bremner (Atkinson 71), Guthrie (Maxwell 55). Subs: Nixon, Wilson, Archibald.
Linfield: Deane, Robinson, Callacher, Lowry, Adams (Millar 68), Clarke, Casement, Rooney (Burns 71), Fallon (Garrett 83), Mulgrew, Quinn. Subs: Stafford, Stewart, Moore, Mitchell.